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Youth Push Comes To Shove

By James M. Fallows


WHEN Push Comes to Shove first appeared last month, it was easy to excuse it as a collection of bizarre rantings that had somehow found their way into print. But recently there have been alarming signs that the adult world is taking this book seriously, apparently as some kind of statement about Today's Youth, Few members of Youth will make the same mistake.

In all fairness to Steven Kelman, his book does have some attractive aspects. In his overly-ample castigation of student radicals. Kelman covers every danger they pose to free society. Kelman's journal of his freshman year is appealing and disarmingly honest. And the book's cover is exceptionally clever.

As a serious piece of analysis, however, the book is a travesty. Even those who agree with much of the book's content will find themselves wishing that someone besides Kelman had decided to say it. One need not be a great fan of confrontation polities, the Progressive Labor Party, or communists-in-the-peace-movement to feel that Kelman has gone bouncing off the hysterical brink in attacking these bogeymen.

The book's message, while delivered in an unusually shrill tone, will be familiar to veterans of House dining hall conversations. The student radicals, Kelman says, are snotty elitists who trample on the rights of others as they impose their own hyper-moralistic views. Instead of rationally winning converts, they bludgeon opponents into submission. And in the end, they squander all chances of winning mass support by infuriating the rest of the country.

This might well be a defensible theory. Unfortunately, there is no way of knowing whether it is or not from Kelman's book. His arguments are so tainted with personal bile that the book descends to the mudslinging level of the worst of last spring's pamphlets.

In outlining his student foes, for example, Kelman carves the Harvard population into several groups. With the exception of himself and his friends in the Young People's Socialist League, everyone is either: a "hereditary radical." the son or daughter of old-time agitators; part of the declining gentry, trying hard to find lost manhood; a natural troublemaker, one who is "mentally ill"; or a member of the vast horde of "alienated" moderates, who are all unhappy because they have too much time to think about things.

Within each of these grandiose categories, Kelman outlines a few even more stereotyped characters. The SDS members are frequently linked with words like "Nazi" or "kill." Their smiles are like "slime" and they are forever talking of shooting Kelman. The moderates are simply too stupid to see through any of the SDS rhetoric. And so they follow mindlessly along, while Kelman wails in the background.

Kelman refuses to believe that these people could have plausible reasons for their beliefs. Everything except the YPSL position is the offspring of murky thought or infantile anger. In one of his more disgusting sorties into this sort of psychoanalysis, Kelman discusses the possible sexual aberrations that shape an SDS member:

It is widely recognized around campus that security correlates most closely with success with girls... [This] comes out clearly in the mean bit of folk wisdom around campus which assumes that SDSers are discontented with Harvard because they lack feminine companionship. This theory contains a grain of truth, but it fails to come to grips with the fact that SDSers march to the beat of a different drum... (This becomes clear, if nothing else, from observing these [SDS] girls' breast size).

KELMAN has his eye on other SDS bodies as well. The only radical leader to escape the general opprobrium is Michael Kazin. "He was strikingly handsome," Kelman says in introducing Kazin. Readers may puzzle over the number of times Kelman stresses Kazin's "good looks" in the book.

Despite his contempt for most of its current tenants, Kelman is clearly in love with some mythical image of Harvard. As he tells us several times in the book, "few things are more fun than going to Harvard." But sometimes he gets so carried away with his passion that Cambridge readers may wonder just where Kelman has spent the last four years:

Students occasionally do complain about lack of personal contact with professors, but it is hard to chalk up this "lack" to anything, but laziness. The simple fact is that professors, up to and including the famous names on the Faculty, are eminently available to undergraduates.

As evidence, he tells us:

I remember one luncheon with Professor Seymour Martin Lipset in the sanctuary of the Lehman Hall small dining room. (The crowded, noisy Lehman Hall cafeteria outside is an SDS hangout for people so alienated from their fellow students that they refuse to sat in the house dining halls...) ... With his string-bean thin tie and crumpled suit, Lipset seemed the very human, modest, and even shy genius...

Lipset goes on to become a central figure in Kelman's intellectual pilgrimage, calling Kelman to ask advice and giving evidence to support Kelman's theories. It is no huge surprise when he appears on Kelman's back cover to blurb the book as "the best discussion of conflict in the university that has come from undergraduate ranks."

THE CENTRAL complaint Kelman lodges against the radicals-that they are elitists who assume a know-it-all pose-is a peculiar one, considering his own stance in the book. Toting a portable pulpit around with him, Kelman hops up from time to time to point out the true meaning of various incidents.

This pose is most irritating in the improbable scenarios which make up much of the book. The plot of these encounters is nearly always the same: Kelman enters a scene of political confusion, dispenses a few well-chosen? words, and leaves the previously-muddled speechless and enlightened. One of the best of these comes from Kelman's freshman diary, when he straightens out a few blacks:

Many Negroes don't like to be described as "Negroes" anymore. I always try to use the preferred expression, "blacks" or "black people."

The debate moves on, and we are given a glimpse of Kelman's tactics:

I was carefully heightening my responses... I swept my hair back from my damp forehead... I cut in to lighten the air heavy from adversary debating.

And finally, reason triumphs:

We seemed to have reached a climax.... I hadn't finished my chicken yet, but everyone else was preparing to leave. There was no advance indication of what the other Negro kid said as he left. "How do I go about joining YPSL?"

Compounding the problem of tone is the whining note of self-justification that runs through the book. Kelman's theory of democratic pluralism says that any reform group must act by convincing a majority of the people it is right. But since his own YPSL has so obviously failed by those standards at Harvard, Kelman has to find an alibi. Maybe it's because all the kids, are crazy. Or maybe the press has conspired to squash YPSL. Kelman's reluctance to consider any other reason inspires visions of Lyndon Johnson, muttering down on the ranch about how all the people just never got a chance to understand him.

If you are eager to learn more, much more, about the YPSL view of recent events, here is your chance to get 287 pages worth. There may not be another book like this for a while.

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